After winning two consecutive slam dunk competitions in 1988 and 1989, Michael Jordan withdrew from the 1990 event, prompting broadcaster Pat O’Brien to announce, “attention slam dunk contestants, you might have a chance this year.” Jordan would steer clear of the contest for the rest of his career, allowing the rest of the NBA an opportunity to show off.
Yale Law School has dominated the U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings… forever. The school has ranked top overall since U.S. News started ranking schools in the 80s. After a dominant 30+-peat, Yale is finally letting Harvard have the moment in the sun its always dreamed of, after announcing to Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal that it will no longer participate in the USNWR rankings. [UPDATE: Now Reuters reports that Harvard is pulling out too… let’s change this joke to Chicago for the time being).
Let’s check in on Chicago right now:
OK, that’s unfair. Harvard is currently fourth in the USNWR rankings.
“The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed,” Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken said. “Its approach not only fails to advance the legal profession, but stands squarely in the way of progress.”
Specifically, she said, the rankings devalue programs that encourage low-paying public-interest jobs and reward schools that dangle scholarships for high LSAT scores, rather than for financial need.
This is true and why, selfishly, we’d encourage everyone to check out the Above the Law Top 50 Law School Rankings for a better methodology. In fact, the ATL rankings explicitly address Dean Gerken’s second point by rejecting the U.S. News model of rewarding law schools for their inputs — GPAs and LSAT scores — and focusing on the outputs. Since a professional school should be judged on whether or not it places graduates in, you know, the profession.
The former point is a little trickier. With America’s pronounced and growing access-to-justice problem, a ranking that penalizes low-paying public interest work may seem counterproductive. But this isn’t a rankings problem, it’s a law school problem.
The ATL rankings also give higher weight to Biglaw jobs to the extent those jobs come with higher salaries. But that’s not because we want to “devalue programs that encourage low-paying public-interest jobs,” it’s because law schools that charge exorbitant tuition to force graduates into six-figure debt should be judged by how well they position new lawyers to pay it off.
Gerken argues that the rankings create a perverse disincentive because any school creating public interest programs risks a rankings drop. True, but there are ways to massage that. As a backdoor means of valuing lower-paying jobs, the ATL rankings also reward schools for having lower costs. It may not be a perfect proxy, but it bestows an additional advantage on schools that create the conditions where more graduates have the opportunity to consider public interest work.
Yale is actually already taking steps to eliminate costs for students in financial need. That’s a much better way to deal with this than criticizing rankings for acknowledging that most law students will graduate with massive debt and need to pay it off.
But also, when Gerken talks about “low-paying public-interest jobs” is she really complaining that USNWR isn’t rewarding someone for a career in Legal Aid?
Ms. Gerken said U.S. News appeared to classify graduates as unemployed if they had school-funded fellowships to take jobs in public interest fields, or if they went on to enroll in a Ph.D. program or other graduate school. She said the ranking also doesn’t give schools credit for having generous loan-forgiveness programs, which can erase students’ debt loads.
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Those graduates are listed as unemployed BECAUSE THEY’RE UNEMPLOYED. The reason rankings don’t reward school-funded fellowships stems from rampant abuse where schools put graduates who otherwise couldn’t get jobs on the school payroll and tried to pass it off as a job in order to game the “employed 9 months after graduation” stat (UPDATE: I’m showing how long I’ve done this job… it’s been changed to “10 months” now) before leaving the grad high and dry when the rankings moved on to a new cycle. Going to graduate school may be a wonderful opportunity but a graduate student is, nonetheless, unemployed (at least as a full-time, long-term lawyer).
As an aside, this is a good place to note that one factor that is absolutely NOT prompting this decision is the half-cocked temper tantrum being thrown by Judge James Ho and Judge Lisa Branch. They (along with maybe other judges but probably not) are boycotting hiring Yale grads for clerkships which has prompted Yale Law to embrace some frankly embarrassing efforts to prostrate itself at the altar of the right-wing grievance machine. A handful of clerks not getting hired by James Ho just means other judges are going to scoop them up so there’s not much impact here at all.
The loan forgiveness point is well taken, and if we could devise a robust average debt load stat that could ex ante inform a prospective student of what they’ll pay, maybe that could become a better basis for a ranking. But as is, the prudent ranking has to take every prospective student as if they’re going to end up at sticker price and allow them to be pleasantly surprised if that isn’t true.
While Yale is the biggest possible fish to move first, could other law schools follow suit? It’s not like Yale is alone in its frustration with USNWR:
But behind closed doors, administrators have long criticized the U.S. News rankings for focusing on inputs, like high test scores, over outcomes, and for accepting schools’ self-reported data without any audit function. Still, many have been wary of walking away, knowing how powerful a top rank can be as a lure for prospective students and for employers looking to hire new talent.
If only there were a ranking that addressed outputs! The Wall Street Journal could maybe mention such a ranking if it existed.
Alas, they have nothing to add here.
Earlier: Above The Law Top 50 Law Schools Ranking 2022
Yale Law School Invites Boycotting Judges To Campus… Totally Not Cowardly Desperation At All!
James Ho Cancel Cultures Yale Law FedSoc Because Other Students Are Mean To Yale Law FedSoc Students
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.